Steve McQueen’s film Prey is a rhythmic, deeply poetic work, elusive, yet compelling to watch. The very act of eluding and evading, however, is a device central to the film, playing, as the title indicates, with concepts of capture and escape. The film begins with a close-up of a reel-to-reel tape recorder with two large spools, one red and one green, lying in long summery grass. A sound recording of tap-dancing is playing from the reels, but the clicking, almost popping, noise could be anything from an unearthly Morse code to the sonar echo of a bat or perhaps an arrhythmic drumbeat. For roughly the first half of this six-minute film, we closely watch the tape recorder’s reels spin around – a smooth motion, which, together with the tippity-tap recording, is both a visualisation of the sound and an incongruous contrast. Suddenly, the tape recorder appears to move, independently, retreating from the viewer. As the camera follows, the recorder bumbles along the uneven grass for a few seconds before taking off, at which point we realise that it is attached to a small weather balloon. The recorder, with the noise that it carries, retreats off into the bright white sky, slowly disappearing – audibly and visibly – for the last half of the film. At the end, when it has all but disappeared, the tape recorder begins to parachute back to earth, and the camera’s angle drops to grass-level once more. The cycle begins again as the film restarts.
Included in the artist’s 1999 Turner Prize exhibition, to some extent the film is a foray into rich primary colour: red from one tape reel, green from the other reel, the surrounding grass and a bluish-green plastic bag that lies nearby. The flight from the viewer halfway through the film also involves a flight from these rich colours; the object flies away into a white sky tinged with baby blue, and, one might argue, into an almost painterly abstraction.
The film is projected large, and at some height above the viewer, so that one must gaze upwards as the tape recorder rises into the sky. As the artist has said, ‘I want to put people into a situation where they’re sensitive to themselves watching the piece.’ In this case, the physicality of the film, together with the almost sculptural qualities of distance – near and far – created by the sound, exacerbates a sense in the viewer that is almost akin to a desire: we want the object to return to us.
This desire forms part of a series of subtle decisions by McQueen that put the viewer in the position of unsuccessful hunter. Whilst the film bears some similarity to wildlife documentaries – the unsteady camera crouched in the grass, observing its strange quarry – the sound of the tap dancer seems to suggest that an attempt has been made to ‘trap’ the dancer within the recording. The tape recorder itself is of a type used by the CIA and FBI: a further indicator of blunt machines of authority (and one can include the film camera as one of these) attempting to pin down the essence of a flighty, joyous activity like dance – the swift, flying feet of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers perhaps, which never touch the ground. The abstract sound might have been captured by the recorder, but as the sound of foot hitting floor flies away into the sky, it is almost as though the dancers’ feet mock this earthly attempt to strap them down.
(c) Laura McLean-Ferris 2009
1‘Let’s get physical’, McQueen interviewed by Patricia Bickers, Art Monthly (December 1996 – January 1997).